The Average Joe imperative

There once was a time when I thought Second Life was going to take over the world. Well, the virtual world.

I was so impressed with the technology – and amazed at its availability for free! – that I saw it as an unstoppable force.

Yet more fascinating for me was its implications for education. Web conferencing was starting to become popular around the same time, and while these days Skype and FaceTime are de rigueur, back then webcamming introduced a sorely needed human element to distance learning.

However, I noticed something peculiar with web conferencing. While the webcam presented the human face, the learning experience remained undeniably isolated. We were all together, yet each alone.

Second Life was different. Its animations reproduced not only the full human form, but also the learning environment: chairs, tables, stage, etc. Now (at least visually) we were all together. The irony was that by making the interaction entirely artificial, it made it more real.

A virtual learning session in Second Life

Alas, Second Life had an Achilles heel. While it was drop-dead easy to participate as a consumer, it was relatively difficult to participate as a producer.

For a start, if you wanted your own space, you had to buy your own virtual real estate. But worse, it was surprisingly hard to make stuff. I remember trying to build simple objects using the developer tools, but I struggled. So I’d give up, go back to it later when I could steal some time, only to abandon it again. Until I finally gave up for good.

Now I’m a fairly tech savvy kind of guy. While I can’t hack into NASA, I’m confident enough to give any software a go and not be put off by shiny new toys. But I was put off by this. And so too, it would seem, was the rest of the L&D world.

Graph of Gartner hype cycle showing that all new innovations follow the same predictable trajectory from hype to eventual application

The moral of the story is deeper than the Gartner hype cycle.

In fact, while we experienced a peak of inflated expectations with Second Life, and then the trough of disillusionment, I don’t think as a profession we ever reached the slope of enlightenment, let alone the plateau of productivity. Sure, some educators such as Sydney Medical School are doing wonderful things on the platform, but that’s hardly universal.

So what happened?

To me it’s simple: Second Life failed to accommodate Average Joe. If Joe wanted to attend a virtual conference or a meetup, he could do so with ease; however, if he wanted to host a virtual conference or create a meetup venue, that was beyond him.

And so Second Life sailed off the edge of the virtual world.

Statue of Achilles Thniskon

Compare Second Life’s journey to that of other products that have emerged recently. For example, everyone says that Articulate Storyline looks and feels like Microsoft PowerPoint. Well guess what… that’s the point.

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is easy to use. So hundreds of millions of people use it.

Articulate’s master stroke was to piggyback the usability of PowerPoint for their own purposes. And the proof of the pudding is in its eating. I am seeing Average Joes everywhere who wouldn’t touch other authoring tools with a 10-foot pole expressing an uncharacteristic willingness to give this one a go. That’s not by accident; it’s by design.

I predict a similar fate for other emerging technologies, be it Tin Can, augmented reality, responsive e-learning, or whatever else lay on the horizon.

Address the Average Joe imperative. Lest your Achilles heel becomes your fatal flaw.

Explore posts in the same categories: e-learning development, technology, usability

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21 Comments on “The Average Joe imperative”

  1. philaspden Says:

    Reblogged this on egenius and commented:
    Good article and your assessment of the ‘average Joe’ factor is absolutely right. Thanks for introducing me to the Hype cycle as well.

  2. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks Phil, and you’re welcome!

  3. LearnKotch Says:

    Hey Ryan – great reflection on Second Life – I remember all the hype about it – reminds me a bit of the current MOOC hype.

    In the same vein as above, I don’t think the current MOOC model caters for the Average Joe. It may evolve to do so, thus it wont be the same MOOC model. In fact it has already revamped beyond resemblance from the first MOOC offerings but still a long way to go…

    Stay tuned for the MOOCs and Average Joe blog post….

  4. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Con.

    When you say you don’t think the current MOOC model caters for the Average Joe, do you mean in terms of consuming them or producing them?

    I look forward to your blog post.

  5. LearnKotch Says:

    Hi Ryan – good question. In all such situations I use the Con test because I see myself as an “Average Joe”. I think that the MOOC model fails predominantly on the way they are structured / designed ( so I assume this is the producing part). It also has some faults in the way they are promoted (i.e. consumed) – that is accessed and how they deliver on learner expectations.

    More on the upcoming blog post.


  6. Ah! I remember Second Life! Do you know that I wrote a blog post (on my other personal blog) about it back in 2007 when I was going through some personal angst at work and your post reminded me of it? http://anchorgirls.blogspot.com.au/2007/03/bored-of-your-life-try-second-life.html

    You’re right. Life’s too complex anyway – simple is good. Sometimes we forget that and then we wonder why it all died away to become just another fad. Thanks for the blog post!

  7. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Wow, doesn’t everything date so quickly!

    Don’t get me wrong, btw, I quite like Second Life. When I started dabbling in it I had to consciously withdraw from it – because I could see myself becoming addicted ;0)


  8. There is a moral to the story here. I thought Second-Life had some very real potential for our organization a number of years ago. The population of colleagues was very dispersed and in small groups. What a great way to get people together! I was willing to do the up-skilling necessary, but once I got into it – YOWZA and like you, I consider myself to be fairly tech-savvy. I was waiting for the system to get easier to use, as other social companies were doing, but I never saw them really adjust and then I forgot about them. Out of sight out of mind. The customer has a funny way of deciding what they can and cannot handle, and what they want to learn and what they don’t want to learn. Second Life is a great example of this. Glad they appear to finally want to turn the corner and go with the road, rather than completely driving off the cliff.

  9. Nick Says:

    Seems every so often Second Life comes about in my life, but I think it’s an exception that didn’t follow the Gartner hype cycle. It made it through the beginning but never out of the trough of disillusionment.

    Makes me recall the beginning when it was first open for beta, I was one of those participants along with a beta tester for There which has been gone since then, but is now back.

    I used it on a personal level at that time but even after two experience of having it brought back into my life, I still am in agreement with you that it doesn’t cater enough to the average Joe.

    In both my undergraduate and graduate programs Second Life has been brought up to explore, even with some guidance. While there are some great things out there, it’s a challenge to find them, and use them, let alone create them.

    I too have attempted to create objects in it, and along with you have failed. I think it takes a programmer to actually create anything.

    I’m not sure Second Life will ever get out of that trough of disillusionment, but it will at least have its niche audience.

    Your statement crosses over to a lot of technologies, even Enterprise Social Networks which I wrote about.

    If it’s not ridiculously simple to use, it won’t get used.

  10. Ryan Tracey Says:

    I was in a similar position, Shannon. Working for a corporation with 3 major offices in Australia, let alone the international offices, I too considered Second Life as a potential social forum that could link us all together in an engaging and meaningful way.

    I was particularly inspired by BNP Paribas’ (another financial services company!) use of the platform for recruitment purposes. But as a lone force in my organisation at the time, I didn’t have either their funding or the executive support to follow it up.

    I kept waiting for SL to offer corporate accounts — private spaces which only your employees could access, with pre-fabbed templates so that you can pick the look and contents of your environment without needing a PhD in virtual architecture — but it was never forthcoming.

    You say SL appears to finally want to turn the corner and go with the road, how so? I must admit I haven’t been keeping up with their activities.

  11. Ryan Tracey Says:

    I remember There, Nick, and a couple of other competitors too. I looked at some of them as potential alternatives, but they seemed to suffer the same limitations.

    It’s funny you should mention ESNs because I experienced something similar with Twitter: while they wondering about how to monetise the system, I expected them to offer corporate accounts. Disappointingly they went with advertising instead (yawn), and Yammer stepped in to fill the void.

  12. Nick Says:

    I felt compelled to comment again as I didn’t mention it (but though it then forgot it) in my original post.

    I do have to disagree with you on the fate of responsive e-learning. My thought on that is more if rapid dev tools don’t go that route then they will go the way of the dinosaur, not matter how easy to use.

    Storyline is a great product, but with the release of Captivate 8, it has some very important catching up to do. I suggested this to them nearly a year ago, and if their next release doesn’t combine their current ease of use with the features to cover various device sizes, the tool will lose relevance very rapidly.

    If Storyline does stay at the top of the heap without adding these very important mobile features, then it’s just a testament to how behind the times L&D is. It’s not just up to the tool developers to create the latest and greatest tech, it’s up to the practitioners to demand the best. We have to offer what the end user needs, even if they don’t know they need it yet.

    So, I love Storyline, but if the next release doesn’t address the lack of device support, it will become a dying technology. I’ll be forced to second guess my usage of it, and move to a tool that better accommodates the needs of the user. And that, I demand.


  13. Ryan – thank you for the reply! I just consider myself to be an optimist. I trip over the occasional article that SL is in the process of updating, albeit slowly. I think the beta will not be out until 2016, but any progress to make the experience a better one is good news. I will admit everything I read deals only with user experience once a location is built, not actually building the location – but one would hope that one includes the other. I also read the new (?) CEO isn’t terribly concerned about backwards compatabilty. Which to me is anther good sign, sometimes you just have to start fresh. I’m sure there are pros and cons to this approach, but at least they are talking about it. I would guess they have to – as I believe the retention rate is only 20% after 30 days. I know SL has been around for awhile but that business model cannot be sustainable for much longer.

    Proof, of course, is in the pudding – but I still believe the potential is great, if it is easy – as you say for the Average Joe (and accessible/easy/secure for the Average Corporation too).

  14. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Well a big gripe I have with Storyline is the problems I have with playing its output properly on the iPad. Articulate claims to have fixed the problem by creating a mobile player app, which works great, but it’s only xAPI compliant! My LMS is not.

    I actually agree with you about responsive e-learning design. My implicit thought is that it will rely on authoring tools to implement. Of course we can always have a RED framework, but if we have no means to apply it, we shan’t. Such an opportunity to stand out in the competitive authoring tool market!

  15. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Sounds like I need to investigate Captivate 8 and take another look at SL!


  16. You should try Protonmedia. This is a simple second life type of environment, all be it limited in scope built on top of Microsoft Lync. So it’s a Lync session on steroids. Easy to use and adds a little more fun to the experience. It’s a toe in the pond. I have been at web learning since I began with Plato and I have told many companies, until an ID’er can easily build a learning environment with all the objects and track the interaction it will never fly. Easy to create, easy to use. People are just learning to stop dumping information. We are light years away learning nirvana.

  17. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Cheers David, and thanks for the tip re Protonmedia. This might be just the ticket for an organisation on a Windows environment.

  18. Alberto Says:

    My feeling is that mr. Average wants to accomplish “easily” tasks that are becoming more and more complex every day… and sometimes they doesn’t make sense ;)
    Most of the times we ask for ease, but we mean “customization”: we’d like a single perfect button to do anything in any moment.
    So I’m not so sure mr. Average really exists…who is he? where does he live? There are a few billions of different Average Joes out there, and this discussion could continue for years trying do define “easy for who” and “easy to do what”. The real challenge, I think, is not about technology but about designing quality projects, engaging patecipation, creating commitment (wich after all means”dealing with human beings”)

  19. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Fair comment, Alberto. Thanks for making it.


  20. Interesting- I also think that for many users, the cognitive and physical challenges of learning to operate in the environment often exceeded the challenge of learning the content!

    Like you, I was an early SL evangelist – but I was at a conference and the speaker said “hold up your hand if you can install and access Second Life at your office workstation” – about 3 out of 50 hands went up.

    That’s what popped the bubble for me- two barriers is two too many!

    On the bright side, in my despair I accidentally left our test space in SL unlocked and it turned into a dumping ground for people’s failed builds- after a while the neighbourhood went up market and the neighbours payed me enough Linden dollars to convert to A$75 just to leave so they could tidy up my virtual mess!

  21. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Pertinent observations, David.

    That’s hilarious about the neighbourhood going up market!


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